Living Off the Land
An interview with T.C. Boyle
By Steven Robert Allen
T.C. Boyle has been a reliable fiction factory for well over two decades. His best-known book is undoubtedly The Tortilla Curtain, the 1995 social novel that lampooned the immigration situation along our southern border. Yet novels like A Friend of the Earth and The Road to Wellville, as well as Boyle's numerous short story collections, have also met with plenty of commercial and critical success.
He's currently on tour to support the paperback release of Drop City, a novel that's received glowing reviews from critics across the country. Set in 1970, it tells the story of a bunch of hippies who make their way to Alaska to start a commune and end up clashing with the crusty locals.
Boyle's books have been published into dozens of different languages, and he's a rare case of a writer who's equally accomplished at crafting both novels and short stories. He's also famous for putting on some very entertaining performances to promote his books.
Bound To Be Read will host one such performance at Madstone Theaters on Tuesday, March 2, at 7 p.m. Passes are free if you purchase one of Boyle's books or make a donation to the Sierra Club (via Bound To Be Read). To get tickets, call 828-3500 or stop by the store.
The Alibi recently had an opportunity to talk with Boyle about his last novel, his upcoming novel, homesteading and vomiting. Here's what he had to say.
You've got quite a reputation for lively readings. Have you always been comfortable in front of a crowd?
Well, it's something that you learn just as you learn how, for instance, to write a novel. You're not born knowing how to do it. I think I've always enjoyed being in front of a crowd. I learned how to do it when I was 21 years old and was thrust into a ghetto junior high school where I was the teacher, having never seen a child before nor taken any teaching courses. I think if you could stare down that mob and entertain them and keep them interested, you could do anything. That was my first taste of it. I've always enjoyed reading my stories, just to my friends. Yeah, I would be nervous at first, and I'd get up there, and I'd say a few insane jokes that nobody got, then I'd put my head down and read. But now I'm so relaxed with it. I love it so much. I just kind of look at everybody and just talk to them and, at some point, we give them a nice dramatic reading too.
Have you ever had a hankering to join a commune?
Well, I'm a little bit too cranky for that, Steve. I've never been to one nor have I had a hankering to join one, although like most Americans I do share this utopian vision of a more reduced society. If you look through all my books, I think many of them have to do with small communities. I guess my experience is like that of practically anybody else in America. We've all at one time or another lived with roommates, whether it be in college or post-college and shared rent and had a bunch of people coming and going, and I think that experience could give you a pretty good idea of what it might be like. I've been joking, too, with the crowds lately that I'm getting to an age now where many of my life-long bachelor friends have realized that they're never going to get married. Many are divorced—men and women both. God forbid, one is a widower. And I'm thinking maybe we should all get together, rent a big house and cook pots of spaghetti every night. What do you think?
Not likely, huh?
No, it's not likely. (laughs)
Let's talk about Drop City's success. That novel caught on even better than most of your other books. Why do you think that is?
I have no idea. I just do my work and hope for the best. By far, my best-selling and best-known book is The Tortilla Curtain, which has been recognized as a modern classic. Every kid in California reads it for school. However, when it came out in 1995, about half the reviews were negative, and I was reviled and abused by everybody in the whole country. So, this feels a little bit better. There was practically no one who didn't praise Drop City, which makes me feel wonderful. The only criticism I had was from some of the real, old hippie communoids who felt that I ought to paint a rosier picture of communal life. I had a conversation with one guy, who's quite well-known as a hippie activist and communoid, on a live radio show, and I said to him, "Well, you know, this is my novelization. It's America. I can do what I want. I'm an artist. Why don't you write your book?" Go ahead, you know? I was thinking, God, it's quite funny that people think that if you're talking about an era and they remember it in such a light then of course you're obligated to remember it in exactly the same light that they remember it.
Have you come across that fairly regularly, that people romanticize that era and lifestyle?
Of course. My object is not to demystify it. I don't have any political point. I'm not trying to dis' communes or hippies or anything else. This book is an outgrowth of A Friend of the Earth, my last novel, about the environmental movement. That one is set 25 years in the future, when, of course, all the headlines have come true, and the world has turned to shit, and it's raining all the time, and all the animals are dead. Everything is horrible. I thought, why not go back a given period, in this case about 30 years, to the back-to-the-earth movement when people did feel that we should live more in tune with nature in a more sustainable way and reject capitalism, which, after all, posits infinite consumers and infinite products. It's got to go bust at some point. It was more the ecological part of it that interested me than, let's say, the political side. As you'll notice, there isn't much of the politics of the time in Drop City. Certainly, it has to be there to make it credible, but it was more about the biological imperative of our species. I chose the year 1970 specifically because that was the last year you could homestead in the United States—in Alaska, that is—and live just as the pioneers did. No real estate agents, no taxes, no regulation. You see a plot of land. You take it and cut the trees down, and you live there. That's gone. Forever.
It's kind of a shame.
Well, I don't know whether it's a shame or not. Until the industrial age, practically everybody who lived throughout the ages lived that way. I just think it's no longer conceivable. Even then, back in 1970, there were still 4 and 1/2 billion people. Of course, that's a lot less than 6.2 billion, and you might remember how clear the freeways were back then but still I think what I learned from this is that a guy like Sess [one of the main characters in Drop City], for instance, might be able to live off the land and sustain himself, but we are the alpha predator, like the grizzly bear or the mountain lion. Such a predator needs a huge range of land—I mean, you know, 20 square miles or something—in order to find enough prey and food sources to sustain himself. So obviously we can't go back to anything like that. It's been a long time since we were able to. Still, there was the possibility for really disaffected people like the hippies in my book or like Sess to get away from society. No one has that option anymore.
Let's talk about The Inner Circle, your new novel coming out in September. You've had this developing social/ecological theme in the last few novels. Did you continue that theme in the new one?
Yes, absolutely. Again, I don't plot this out beforehand. Subjects occur to me and I see that I'm interested in them. Then in retrospect I see how they fit into the general oeuvre of everything I've done, which has to do with opposing the material and kind of Darwinian and purely scientific view of our existence. This book is set in the '40s and '50s of the last century, back before this notion of free love and open sexuality of the hippies in Drop City. I've written about Dr. Kinsey's sex researchers. The hero is an invented character who tells the story in a first-person narration. He works with Kinsey and his sex researchers, so the subject matter is pure sex, beginning to end. By the way, the short story collection that comes out next year is called Tooth and Claw after my story that was in the New Yorker recently. It takes its epigraph from Darwin's The Descent of Man [the title of my first short story collection], so these things all do kind of fold in on each other endlessly. That's the fun of discovering where I'm going and what I'm trying to figure out.
So your readers can expect some pretty graphic sex in The Inner Circle?
Yeah, but it's very funny, too, in a way that makes you want to choke yourself and vomit, you know, that kind of funny?
Yeah. I love that kind of funny. (laughs)
Good, good. Many of my novels are very complex, like Drop City where you have 15 points of view and a huge cast of characters. This one is just a grab-you-by-the-nose read. You'll see. It was really fun to write. It's the quickest book I ever wrote by far.
What's been more satisfying for you, working on short stories or novels?
I like them equally. The joy of writing short stories is that anything that occurs to you while you're living your day-to-day life can be incorporated and become a new story tomorrow. That's very exciting. The down side is that once you finish one, you're bereft of ideas and you want to go hang yourself until you start another one. With a novel the downside is you're locked into something for a long period of time, and you have to maintain the tone, consistency and vision of that over a long period of time. What occurs to you or what excites you day to day can't be incorporated. The plus side is you know what you get to do tomorrow morning.
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